Call to Action conference focuses on laity’s role in reform of church and society

Nate Hamilon, brother of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black man killed by police in 2014, addresses the Rally for Justice at Red Arrow Park. (Deb Winarski)
Nate Hamilon, brother of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black man killed by police in 2014, addresses the Rally for Justice at Red Arrow Park. (Deb Winarski)

by Jamie Manson

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On the evening of Nov. 6, more than 1,000 people gathered in Milwaukee to kick off the 39th annual Call to Action conference. The event offered an infusion of lay empowerment in a season dominated by the papal visit to the U.S. and the Synod of Bishops in Rome.

Participants responded to the conference’s theme, “Love Radically. Live Faithfully,” by offering keynote speeches and dozens of workshops that addressed many of the issues currently rending the heart of the Catholic church in the United States--and the country as well.

Issues as diverse and urgent as the family, the clergy sex abuse crisis, the transgender experience, nonviolence, the journey of the undocumented immigrant, base communities, and the firing of LGBT church workers were presented in programs throughout the weekend. Many opportunities for prayer, artistic expression, and spiritual practice were also available.

Related: CTA calls for solidarity to support church worker justice

The gathering of theologians, women religious, ministers, activists and committed lay Catholics found inspiration and renewed purpose in the Saturday morning keynote address, given by longtime NCR columnist Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister.

Offering an extended reflection on the role of the public intellectual in the building of a moral and just society, Chittister reminded the audience that there is a necessary role for their voices in both church and state.

“In an election year when the country is to be electing a president and in the church with a pope who is opening it for questions,” Chittister told the crowd, “ask yourself: What is your role and mine, if we are to live the Gospel faithfully and radically?”

“The case is clear,” she continued. “There is no substitute for the role of public intellectuals in any society or organization -- public or private, sacred or secular -- to call the rest of us to the best of ourselves when inertia and institutionalization threaten to smother us all.”

Chittister thanked both the speakers and attendees at the year’s convention. Their presence, she said, is “living proof of your own place and role as serious public thinkers, for being a clear, committed and courageous model of all our hopes.”

“If you’re wondering if your work on earth is finished, and you’re still alive, it isn’t,” she concluded.

Immediately following Chittister’s speech, scores of CTA members and local citizens heeded her call by marching from the Milwaukee convention center to a rally in Red Arrow Park, the site of the deadly 2014 shooting of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed African-American man, by police. The rally, which CTA co-led with the Milwaukee-based Coalition for Justice, included speeches from members of Hamilton’s family.

Nate Hamilton, brother of Dontre, said he found strength in the support his family received from CTA.

"I felt it was a day of awakening for folks that don't live the life that black men and women live,” Hamilton told NCR. “I felt like we connected with the Catholic church in a major way."

For Megan Graves, a Call to Action member and co-organizer of the march, the ties between racism and reform of the Catholic church run deep.

“As Fr. Bryan Massingale says, ‘Racism is a soul sickness,’ ” Graves said in an interview with NCR. “Direct action must be taken to call out the Roman Catholic church for its historic role in and benefit from the African slave trades as well as its continued perpetuation of racism and white supremacy.”

The march and rally were further evidence of CTA’s ongoing commitment to reform its own structures and practices to be consistent with the organization's values of transparency, inclusion, anti-racism and anti-oppression.

A clarion call to anti-racism work came on the heels of the march in a powerful Sunday morning keynote address by Kelly Brown Douglas, a scholar and Episcopal priest who serves as director of the religion program at Goucher College in Baltimore. Douglas’ talk, “Stand Your Ground: A Call for Action,” was based on her most recent book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis, 2015).

Douglas’ address traced the roots of stand-your-ground laws to slavery and the ideology of "American exceptionalism," which privileges Anglo-Saxon heritage over all others.

“Just because chattel slavery no longer exists in America ... does not mean that the racial constructs that slavery produced do not continue to exist,” Douglas said. “The black body as chattel is the specter from slavery that has the greatest impact on black people’s current social, cultural realities.”

Douglas says that the chattel construct persists today in the form of stand-your-ground laws and the prison industrial complex, which she calls “the new slave-ocracy.”

The ongoing drive to criminalize the entire black population is a sign of white America’s enduring belief that “the black body is not meant to be free.”

Douglas issued a challenge to the white religious community, which, she says, has been reluctant to respond to -- and in some instances has been antagonistic toward -- movements like Black Lives Matter.

“The cross has been a stumbling block for many churches,” she told the audience. “For far too many white churches, it prevents them from recognizing the face of the crucified Jesus that is not white.”

The church must “absolutely cross over into the Samaritan spaces of our own time so to enter into solidarity with marginalized and crucified black bodies,” Douglas continued.  “The church must step into the space of all of those innocent black bodies that have fallen victim to stand-your-ground culture.”

A similar call to accountability by the church’s faithful preceded Douglas’ speech, when CTA awarded its 2015 Leadership Award to Jennifer Haselberger, the former canonical chancellor of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. She resigned in 2013 after blowing the whistle on the gross mishandling of clergy sexual abuse allegations by the diocese.

In her acceptance speech, Haselberger admitted that she still wrestles with the question of why so many bishops, priests, lawyers and lay members of various communities unquestioningly obeyed commands for silence and caved into fears of punishment in the face of such profound suffering.

“Are they evil?” she asked. “Or is it simply that they had become intoxicated, seduced or even bought with the personal advantages that such compliance was thought to bring?”

But rather than point our fingers at perpetrators, everyone in the church is called to an “old-fashioned examination of conscience” in order to acknowledge our own accountability in the crisis, Haselberger said.

“The refusal to be silent is a responsibility that lies with all of us and is all the greater when the church’s true weakness lies within,” she concluded.

After the speeches by Douglas and Haselberger, a resounding call to reorient ourselves toward the margins of the church and society came during the conference’s concluding homily on Sunday morning, which was offered by Maria Teresa Davila, associate professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School.

“The kin-dom of God is on the move!” she told the community gathered for closing Eucharist.

“It holds us up when we are beaten and broken. When so-called custodians of grace and holiness preach exclusion clothed in tradition, using doctrine as a weapon. When radical welcome is ridiculed, labeled ‘heresy’ and outright forbidden,” she continued.

Preaching on both the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17 and Mark’s Gospel story of the widow’s offering in the temple, Davila reminded the crowd that they are called to make “the journey from the center to the margins” and to dwell among “the people outside the gates, outside the boundaries of the acceptable and proper.”

Being static, she said, prevents us from encountering God in those places where God is most active and present.

Davila admitted that, for many CTA members, the fight to keep moving and struggling for justice in the church can be hard. “The fight has already been oh so long.”

Nevertheless, she said, the Gospel tells us that we have to move, to shift our location, and “become incarnate in a different place in order to continue creating a more inclusive, just, loving and holy vision of the kin-dom.”

The powerful response to the homily was clear evidence that it had spoken directly to the hearts of the conference’s attendees -- those who are aware that, even in the era of a popular pope, the work of change and reform still rests on the shoulders of the laity.

“Pope Francis certainly instills hope that our church can change for the better. But it's we who must spark transformation from the ground up,” CTA’s executive director Jim FitzGerald said in an interview with NCR after the conference. “It's all our responsibility to embody a church rooted in equality and justice for everyone." 

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. Her email address is]

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